Think you’ve seen Singapore? More than a modern metropolis, what lies beneath the sophisticated skyline of this rapidly growing city state is a treasure trove of sights, sounds and tastes that are uniquely Singaporean.
1. Visit a hawker centre
Food is a major part of life in Singapore and is the key to discovering some of the most unique aspects of this city. To find the most authentic Singaporean food, visit what is known as a hawker centre.
Hawker centres are hubs for local communities in Singapore and are dotted across the island, many located just below HDBs – an acronym used locally to describe the Housing and Development Board apartments that many Singaporeans live in. Each stall has its own signature dishes that are prepared fresh daily.
Hawker centres in Singapore offer unique local cuisines (Credit: Singapore Tourism Board)
Known locally as chai tow kway, carrot cake is a uniquely local dish
Food is a major part of life in Singapore and is the key to discovering some of the most unique aspects of this city.
Visit stalls that sell local foods such as laksa, a spicy noodle soup; orh luak (oyster omelette) and carrot cake, which is not a dessert but a delicious mix of steamed white radish fried with eggs and garlic, and usually served with chilli.
Kaya toast with ‘kopi’ or ‘teh’ and half-boiled eggs is a staple breakfast item in Singapore (Credit: Singapore Tourism Board)
Breakfast here is also something not to be missed. As you walk along the quieter roads in the mornings, also look for local coffeeshops serving kaya (coconut jam) toast and soft-boiled eggs – Singapore’s national breakfast dish!
Wash your food down with one of the quirkiest aspects of the local food scene. Different countries have their own special take on coffee and Singapore is no different. Order a kopi (coffee), teh (tea) or Milo, and be surprised when you’re asked if you want it in a plastic cup or a plastic bag with a straw!
2. Order your drinks the Singaporean way
Kopi is Malay (one of Singapore’s four most popular languages) for coffee and you can get it in many forms – as kopi o kosong (black coffee), kopi o (coffee with sugar), kopi (with condensed milk) or even kopi siew tai (coffee with less sugar). The same applies to teh (tea). Ask a local how to order it just the way you want it – but be prepared to trip over your tongue when you say it the first couple of times.
Another must-try is tak kiu (a creamy chocolate malt drink), made with Milo and teh or kopi. The names might confuse you, but there’s good reason for them. For instance, tak kiu translates to ‘kicking a ball’. The drink was named to reflect its packaging, which often shows a football player in action.
3. Take in the sights and sounds of the heartland
Wherever you are during your travels across the island, take time to listen to the sounds. Take a walk along some of the neighbourhood parks in the early morning, and observe the careful movements of locals practising tai chi. This ancient art form is best described as movement-based yoga and meditation. For a metropolitan city-state, Singapore has an abundance of greenery everywhere. Go for a hike or cycle along the many trails, reservoirs and parks that criss-cross the island, and try to spot Singapore’s famous family of celebrity otters. They are a unique sight amidst the urban landscape of Singapore, but one well worth seeing. If you’re lucky, you might spot this family of 10 smooth-coated celebrities in the Marina Bay area, enjoying a meal of fresh fish either in the water or on land. Known as the Bishan 10, they love cameras and put on a veritable show for the public.
Listen to the strikingly rich mix of languages spoken by locals. There are four official languages in Singapore – English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil – but you will also hear what is known as Singlish, a colourful hybrid of these languages, mixed with other local dialects like Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese. If you listen closely enough, you may even be able to pick up some phrases to take home. If you can tell the difference between a ‘lah’ and a ‘leh’ by the time you leave Singapore, consider yourself a winner!
4. Check out one of the best public housing systems in the world
The HDB residential housing buildings in Singapore are often colourful and buzzing with activity (Credit: Singapore Tourism Board)
The HDB residential housing buildings in Singapore offer a glimpse into local life (Credit: Singapore Tourism Board)
HDB apartment blocks are a distinct aspect of the urban landscape. Notice as you drive through Singapore the brightly coloured groups of buildings rising up across the island, which are surrounded by parks and playgrounds. You might even see bamboo poles sticking out of the windows on some floors – a clever method used by residents to dry their clothes! These are the modern flats.
As of 2015, about 81 per cent or more than three million Singapore residents have been living in HDB flats. The high standard of living that these HDBs provide, despite being public housing buildings, is often a matter of amazement for visitors, but a daily reality for those living here.
Seek out the starting point of modern Singapore in the neighbourhood of Tiong Bahru. This area holds much significance, as this is where the first public housing estate was built in the 1930s. The Art Deco low-rise buildings of the estate are a beautifully curved departure from the skyscrapers that tower over parts of Singapore.
Take the National Heritage Board’s Tiong Bahru Heritage Trail, a 2.5km self-guided tour that takes in the architecture, history and culture of this vibrant area. Or go for a stroll among the high-rise housings in the townships of Bukit Batok or Queenstown.
5. Hunt down the ice cream man!
A deliciously cool cone from the local ice cream man is the best way to beat the heat in Singapore (Credit: Singapore Tourism Board)
In a nostalgic contrast to the modern city that is Singapore, the quirky ice cream vendors selling their fare from a motorcycle or small cart under the shade of an umbrella are a pleasant sight, and can be found even on Orchard Road, Singapore’s popular shopping street.
The vendors sell locally inspired flavours such as red bean, yam and durian in wedges referred to as potong or cut ice-cream. The dessert is cut from a block and served inside a slice of soft and fluffy multi-coloured bread sold for just over a dollar each – a delicious relief from the heat.
Move beyond the tourist hotspots and you will discover that Singapore has more to offer than meets the eye.